The Guy with the Tie

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Before we get to my 50 caps for England, I just want to tell you how this all started. I am aware that I’m supposed to talk about how this landmark was always a goal of mine, how playing for England was a dream I’d had since I was a child.

But I never really had any such grand visions per se. When I started out, I didn’t know whether I was going to be any good. I didn’t even know the rules.

Why was I playing? Three reasons, mainly.

1. I wanted to make friends at school.

2. I loved being part of a team.

3. I was obsessed with wearing the county club tie.

Hahaha. I know it sounds silly, but the tie really did light a fire in me. I saw it when I was playing rugby at St George’s School just north of London. I already liked rugby. I was a lot stronger and taller than my peers, so I was obviously decent. The school had A, B and C teams, and I loved saying, “Yup, I’m part of the A team.” It sounded like I was part of some special unit.

However, I never got serious about rugby until I saw the ties.

In case you don’t know, rugby players at my school were allowed to wear representative honours ties. If you play for the county team, you wear a county tie. If you play for South East England, you wear a South East England tie. It’s essentially a piece of attire saying, Look who I’m playing for. Same as being on the A team, only you don’t have to communicate it. People look at the ties and go, Ah. These guys are good.

One day when I was 14, a group of students went away to play for the county team, and when they came back they were wearing these Hertfordshire county ties. I swear, my jaw dropped. My eyes popped out of my head. I was like, Oh my goodness, that’s amazing. I want that tie.

Hahaha. I had to have that tie!!

Courtesy of Maro Itoje
Courtesy of Maro Itoje

So when the county trials came up for my age group, I was no longer playing for fun. I was no longer playing to make friends. This was my opportunity to get that tie.

I was like, When we come back, I am gonna be that guy.

We went off for the trials, and soon I was strolling into school all like, Yep, I’m here. I’m here with the tie.

Hahaha. What a silly, silly moment.

(But deep down, I still think that tie was pretty cool.)

The crazy thing is that those trials led me to sign for Saracens, the team that I have played for ever since. I was chasing that tie so hard that their scouts took note of me. After the trials, this guy named Matt Davies came up to me and said, “Hey Maro, I’d like you to come to the Saracens Academy training. Would you be O.K. with that?”

I was so shocked, all I could say was, “Yeah.…”

Of course, I was super pumped.

But I knew that a lot of kids train with the academies and don’t make it, so I still didn’t know if rugby could become a career for me. That only really hit me when I was 16, and the academy manager invited me to train with the first team. I was like, Oh, my goodness. I got off the phone, ran upstairs and found my mum. She was on the phone, too.

I was like, “Mum, Mum, Mum! I’m gonna train with the first team tomorrow!!”

She moved the phone away from her ear, raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh. Is that meant to be a good thing?”

HAHAHAHA.

I was like, “Yeah.” Duh.

My parents, wow … where do I even start??

You have to know about them to really understand my trajectory. They were born in Nigeria, and even though we lived in London, once you stepped into our house you felt more like you were in Lagos. I’m talking about the culture, the customs, the quantities of food — I don’t know how many fridge-freezers my mum had. She was very popular, so all these relatives would come to our house to see her, and being Nigerians they would never call. They’d just turn up. My job was to open the door and tell my mum who it was.

I would shout out all these names as loud as I could.

Muuum? Auntie Bissie’s at the door.”

“Uncle Balogun’s at the door.”

Add to that all the phone calls, and I was basically part doorman, part secretary. And everyone wanted to speak to my mum. Poor Dad, he was left all alone!

Even though we lived in London, once you stepped into our house you felt more like you were in Lagos.Maro Itoje

Now, if there is one truth about Nigerian households, it is that they all have the same vision for their children. They want you to become a doctor, businessman, engineer or lawyer. They will still talk to you if you become a dentist. And if you descend into politics, maybe you can come home for dinner once in a while.

But everything else, forget it. They want professional jobs, reliable jobs. Jobs with a track record of success.

The worst jobs you can go for are in art and music. I don’t think they consider sports to be a particularly stable profession either.

Especially not sports that are virtually unknown in Nigeria.

When I told my parents that I had started playing rugby, they just saw it as a hobby. Then one day my housemaster called my dad and said, “Mr. Itoje, your son is quite good at rugby. He might have a future there.”

You might expect that my dad’s reaction would have been just pride. But instead my dad got worried. He’s old-school: strict, disciplined and very focused on my career. So he called me over — and you have to imagine this stern, Nigerian accent here….

He said, “Maro, I hear you are playing rugby now. I’m O.K. with it, but make sure that it doesn’t affect your schoolwork….”

Then the killer line.

“… because if the grades drop, the rugby stops.”

Hahahaha.

That was him in a nutshell.

Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images
Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

I’m actually glad that my parents saw it that way, because they never put any pressure on me to do well in rugby. They were never going, “Make sure you wake up on time, make sure you eat this and that.” Whether things went badly for me, or even extremely well, it was never the be-all and end-all. They never saw my worth through the sport that I was playing. Rugby was never really part of the plan.

So it took a while for them to understand that it could become a career for me. Once they did, they were incredibly supportive. But they still had certain expectations that had to be met — above all that I got a degree.

My goodness, I don’t know what would have happened to them had I not gone to university.

Or actually, I kind of do, because one year, on April Fool’s day, I sent my dad an email. It went something like this….

Dear Dad,

As you know, I want to be a rugby player and only that. So I don’t want you to put any pressure on me to go to uni, because I’m not going.

This is my decision. Hope you respect it.

Maro.

I smirked and pressed send.

My dad didn’t talk to me for three days.

He was so agitated. He called my mum in despair, but I had already told her to play along. He was like, “Have you seen what your son is doing?

Hahahaha. I was her son now.

She played her role superbly. She was like, “I know, he doesn’t want to go to uni. But what can we do? Can we force him? This is his decision.”

My dad was up in arms! He was like, “You are supporting this behaviour?!”

He was so embarrassed. He couldn’t sleep. He was pacing around the living room all like, “What am I going to do? What am I going to tell my friends?”

Hahaha. This is what it’s like to grow up in a Nigerian household.

They never saw my worth through the sport that I was playing.Maro Itoje

That’s why I say that going to uni wasn’t really a choice. If I were stubborn, maybe I could have chosen not to. But I ended up doing a B.A. in politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and I’m really glad I did. It made me appreciate the times I was playing rugby, and it exposed me to people I would not have met inside the rugby bubble. I became a more rounded person and, I would even say, a better player.

My schedule was mad for the first two years though, because I was studying full-time. My weekdays went something like this:

5:50 a.m. — Get up; bike to Saracens Academy (I couldn’t drive at the time)

6:50 a.m. — Weigh-in

7 a.m. — Gym

8:30 a.m. — Breakfast

10 a.m. — Training: four units of scrums, walls, etc.

1 p.m. — Squad meeting

2 p.m. — Cycle to station, catch train to uni in London

3 p.m. — Lectures

5 p.m. — Home

That was Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. But I was also on loan at a club called Old Albanian, so I would play a game there every weekend. As for Tuesdays, add this part:

6 p.m. — Catch lift to Old Albanian; if nobody’s driving, get on the bike

7 p.m. — Training

9 p.m. — Home; sleep

So yeah, it was a bit much. I would really struggle to do that now. But even though I was cooked when I got home, I didn’t consider it intense at the time like, Ugh, I have to go training. It was just what I had to do to get what I wanted. And I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to be good in a hurry. I didn’t want anyone to tell me that uni was taking away from my rugby, or vice versa.

I do think that if you really want something in life, you’ll always find a way to get it done.

The graduation ceremony made me prouder than I had expected. I missed it the year I was supposed to do it due to the 2017 Lions tour, which was probably a fair excuse. When I finally walked on stage and got my little thingy, all the work seemed worth it.

As for my parents, you can only imagine what it meant to them.

It’s funny how they have become these huge rugby fans now. They have gone everywhere to watch me play: Tokyo, New Zealand, South Africa. Their social lives are built around the rugby calendar. They even come to watch the Saracens second team on Monday nights. Earlier this year they asked me for tickets to the first games of the season. I said I wasn’t going to play many of them, because I had finished the previous season quite late.

My dad was like, “Get us those tickets. They need to know that we are there to support! Through thick and thin!” Hahaha.

If you really want something in life, you’ll always find a way to get it done.Maro Itoje

My parents were also there for my most memorable moments, like when I got my first England call-up in 2016. I was in bed when Eddie Jones called me. I wasn’t quite sleeping, but I was drowsy.

Eddie said, “Maro, I wanna pick you for the Six Nations. Get ready to work.”

He hung up. That was it.

I jumped out of bed, ran downstairs and told my parents. This time they understood how big it was. I had wanted to be an England player for so long. When I ran onto the field against Italy, I was like, That’s it, I’m an England player now.

It was official, you know? Nobody could take this away from me. It felt similar to when I had turned up at school with the county tie.

I was that guy.

Maro Itoje, England international.

David Davies/Press Association via AP Images
David Davies/Press Association via AP Images

I had to keep it up though, because nobody wants one cap, right? It’s almost worse than having none. I needed a few more to be at least semicomfortable. I also realised that you have to really commit your life to playing for England, otherwise you’re not going to keep your place. You can’t train like Tarzan and live like Mick Jagger, you know what I mean?

Then you find out that no matter how many caps you get, you always want more. When I was younger, I would always go, What is the next goal?

At first it was breaking into the Saracens first team.

Then you turn to international honours.

Play for England.

Be a Lion.

Win as a Lion.

Then you want more Premierships, more European Cups, more Lion tours. There is no final destination.

There is always another tie to chase.

And you have to think like that, because this sport moves very quickly. Not long ago the Lions tour was the biggest thing in the world for me. Now all roads lead to France 2023, and my ultimate goal of winning a World Cup for England.

Dwell too much on the past, and you might get stuck there.

And anyway, the exciting story is the one that is yet to be written, right?

All of which means that I shouldn’t talk too much about getting to 50 caps. But let me just say that I am very proud of them. They mean that I have had a long and sustained career for England. Not many people get to that number, and I never thought I would be one of them.

This is just a landmark, though. I’m by no means done yet.

Not long ago the Lions tour was the biggest thing in the world for me. Now all roads lead to France 2023.Maro Itoje

Sometimes I get asked what I would have told my younger self if I could go back in time. If I had told that kid that he’d get 50 caps for England, what would he say?

It’s an interesting question, but you know what? I wouldn’t have told him that in the first place. I fear that it would have reduced his hunger.

When you are certain of success, there is a chance that you’ll slow down.

So I would rather have told him to just keep getting up early.

Do your homework.

Learn the rules.

Get that tie.

And then one day, maybe you’ll get somewhere.